Last week I asked you to let us know what businesses you'd like to see open their doors in Wilmington, and you flooded us with plenty of names and reasons. Almost all were restaurant and store chains.
I hate to be the contrarian in all this, but let me share a few thoughts. First, as I said before, these companies do a lot of research and are pretty calculated in making such a large investment. So if they think Wilmington would be a good market to be in, they'd be here.
Secondly, when the big chains come to town, most of the profit from these stores and restaurants goes out of town. I'm not an economist, but I would think that the more we do business with locally owned entities, the better off our economy will be.
And lastly…what about the charm and personality of this city? I love having unique shops and restaurants that nobody else in the country has. When we have visitors, that's where they want to go for their shopping or dining experiences.
The bottom line…we can't impact this much. The market decides. And if there is a niche in the market that is not being fulfilled, some smart business owner is going to go after it, be they big or small. I just hope they don't do damage to any of my favorites.
That's my turn. Now it's your turn. To comment on this segment, or anything else, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emailed response from viewers:
This is my response to the "My Turn: What Big Businesses Do You Want to See in Wilmington" and the following piece that aired tonight in which residents said they want Wilmington to attract a Popeye's and Cheesecake Factory among other franchises.
I think this is ridiculous.
First, did someone in your newsroom really say they want a Bob Evans restaurant to come to Wilmington (again, by the way)? The fries smile back at you and the sauces that smother so many of their dishes seem to magically congeal before they reach the table. Does the person who suggested this have that little confidence in our Wilmington chefs to think a menu of such exotic dishes like grilled chicken and mashed potatoes can't be found in one of our local restaurants?
Now that I've gotten that out
of my system I'll put aside my own opinions about what constitutes good food
and get to the heart of the matter, which is that Wilmington residents' pleas
for bland, generic restaurants reflects the city's overall lack of character
and that has serious consequences for our community.
After growing up in Wilmington and living in other parts of the state for a couple of years, my thoughts of my hometown is that it's in an identity crises. This isn't an original thought. This image I have of Wilmington stems partly from talking to non-profit leaders who say city residents lack a clear understanding about the major public problems in this area. This image comes partly from how the city's large, expensive art museum often seems awkwardly out of touch with the more grassroots arts organizations across town. This image comes partly from the baseball stadium controversy that exposed the differing visions of Wilmington's future. And this image was affirmed in July when UNCW announced plans to work on a re-branding initiative for the area.
To an extent, some of this confusion can't be avoided. Between retirees, college students and tourists Wilmington has one of the most transient populations in the state and there are always going to be competing directions for a city. But the problem is that bringing in more national franchises exacerbates Wilmington's identity crisis and that can has real social and economic effects on the area.
One result of diluting Wilmington's character with more national franchises is that it weakens Wilmington's appeal to tourists. Maybe someone from Cary will find comfort in the sterilized image of Mayfaire and the (mostly) boring businesses it already houses, but with our history and natural resources we should be aiming higher. We should be competing with the Charleston's and Key West's of the country that have too much personality to let such an obtrusive development become one of its defining features. Besides restricting Wilmington's appeal to tourists, national chains don't attract a creative class of professionals to become permanent residents and it doesn't support locals who are trying to start their own businesses.
What's interesting about Wilmington's identity crisis in the context of your stories is that local businesses, in particular restaurants, can be a viable solution to many of the city's problems in a concrete way. Durham's been able to foster world class restaurants in spite of, or perhaps because of, its previously rough image to be named Southern Living's "Tastiest Town" and is now a legitimate food destination. Asheville's embrace of local brewery talent earned it Draft Magazine's "Beer City U.S.A." title again and it's a haven for beer lovers along the East Coast. Again, with the talent and natural resources already present, Wilmington could easily find its own culinary niche to make it a food mecca too. This is just one example of how local establishments, not more franchises, could help Wilmington's growth in direct ways.
I know this is a big rant, especially in response to such short segments that aired on what appeared to be slow news days. I also know that as community journalists you cover and support local businesses all the time, which is great. This email is more a reaction to the general conversation about franchises coming to Wilmington that I've seen in various local publications and the views aired in these types of stories, which I find troubling. I just think to some extent y'all have the power to set public agenda and I don't see how airing a brainstorming session about which franchises should come to Wilmington helps anyone. Instead of asking which national franchises could survive in Wilmington, maybe you could ask what people want and if a local solution already exists that they might not know about. Maybe instead of asking which franchises might follow Chipotle coming to town you could ask what the effect has been of putting another Mexican restaurant within a block of both El Agave and Flaming Amy's. I'm also curious about what role, if any, Whole Foods played in the closing of Carolina Farming and if Tidal Creek is in any danger. I obviously can't speak for all your viewers, but I'd be interested in those stories.
Anyway, I hope someone had time to read this and if you did, thank you. (And if you're wondering who has time to write such a thing it would be a college student home on winter break.) Wilmington just really breaks my heart sometimes.
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